Saturday, May 12, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (6)

David Gooding has a knack for taking great wedges of ancient text and breaking them down into manageable chunks of related material, then dissecting those pieces line by line until we are able to think clearly about them. That’s not unique to Gooding of course — all decent Bible teachers do it — but I especially appreciate his sensitivity to the natural flow of poetry, narrative or argument. I have yet to find him analyzing a passage and think Boy, that structure he’s describing looks awfully artificial.

To the extent we are up to the job, it’s a useful trick to imitate.

2. The Benefits of Living Wisely (Proverbs 2:1-22)

I’m not going to attempt anything that detailed or profound in a blog post, of course, or we’ll end up with a seven-part series on Proverbs 2, and few readers are up for that. But I do notice a certain built-in rhythm to the second section of Solomon’s ten-part treatise on wisdom, and it reminds me just a little bit of the conditional statements used in JavaScript, C++ and other programming languages: IF a certain thing occurs, THEN this other thing inevitably follows, and so on.

Here’s how I see this chapter:

// you receive my words (v1)
// you call out for insight (v3)
// you seek [insight] like silver (v4)
// you will understand the fear of the Lord (v5)
// you will understand … every good path (v9)
// you will be delivered from the forbidden woman (v16)
// you will walk in the way of the good (v20)

Solomon’s advice is relentlessly pragmatic: Action X produces Result Y. This is the way life works. Unlike in the previous chapter, he does not stress the obvious negative implications inherent in his argument: If you DON’T receive my words you will NOT understand righteousness and justice. Garbage input produces garbage output.

The Conditions (IF clauses)

There are three necessary personal preconditions to the positive outcome Solomon describes: teachability, prayer and intensity:

Teachability. “IF you receive my words …” We are living in a post-modern day in which receiving wisdom is no longer in vogue. The interpretation of the Grade 9 English student is valued at the same level as that of his teacher … and even equally to the intent of the writer, assuming we cared to discern that in the first place. Even among Christians, there is a major push to have the ramblings of the ignorant elevated to the level of seasoned Bible teachers who have spent thousands of hours in the Word and on their knees. Both are seen as equally valid expressions of personal opinion. If we do not learn to set aside this sort of childish arrogance, humble ourselves and begin again to evaluate views about scripture on the basis of sound, objective principles of interpretation rather than because someone merely happens to hold them, I am not sure where we will end up. Nowhere good, for certain. Receiving the words of the wise is a precondition to a good life outcome.

Prayer. “IF you call out for insight …” Solomon practiced what he preaches. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind,” he asked God, “that I may discern between good and evil.” His request pleased God, and he was granted his desire. James says any of us may do the same, provided we do it in faith. This, of course, does not preclude asking others to share their insights. It is often through others that God supplies the wisdom we require. Solomon was not too proud to include the sayings of other men and women (credited, of course) in his own wisdom literature.

Intensity. “IF you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures …” When something valuable is on offer, the stakes go up and the effort to acquire it increases correspondingly. God says through Jeremiah, “You will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Intensity of effort to learn presupposes that the student accurately values the knowledge to be acquired. Those who don’t really see the point in what is being taught will not expend the effort required to learn it. This probably explains why Solomon starts Proverbs by laying out what sorts of disasters may occur if one does not learn wisdom.

The Practical Implications (THEN clauses)

The payoff for approaching the search for wisdom with teachability, prayer and intensity is twofold:

Reverence. “THEN you will understand the fear of the Lord …” A student who meets all three of Solomon’s conditions maintains an attitude of settled respect toward the Eternal Source of all wisdom and with it an unwillingness to turn to any other putative stream of understanding. Such an individual recognizes that prioritizing his relationship with Heaven above all others protects him from moral harm and equips him for life (“he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints”). This does not manifest in stereotypical, obnoxious public displays of religiosity, but in a quiet, prudent, obedient earthly walk.

Discernment. “THEN you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path.” Of the discerning person Solomon says, “Knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” What a great state to be in. Rather than feeling attacked every time someone inadvertently demonstrates that you have been operating in ignorance, you feel a sense of delight that a new piece of the puzzle has slotted itself into place. Solomon goes on to describe how the combination of enlightenment, reverence and humility is a shield from evil influences and will enable you to see through schemers and avoid being drawn into their plots. Sounds like an awfully useful quality for Christians working for big corporations with Progressive agendas.

The Personal Implications (SO clauses)

Deliverance from sexual disaster. “SO you will be delivered from the forbidden woman …” If there is a bigger source of potential spiritual downfall for a believing man in this life, I can’t think what it is. The literal Hebrew here is “strange woman” and “foreign woman”, which the ESV translates with “forbidden” and “adulteress”. I think that is probably the sense. Bear in mind that if Solomon (and probably his legitimate sons) saw an unattached woman they desired, they could simply add her to their harem. The kings of Israel accorded themselves a great deal of latitude in that area which Christians cannot. For Solomon to use a word like “forbidden” suggests he recognized that even for a king with hundreds of wives and concubines, there is a type of morally off-limits sexual relationship that can absolutely finish you off. Many chapters of Proverbs are devoted to this issue.

But the important thing to note here is that sometimes reverence for God will stop you in your tracks where rational arguments fail entirely. When God rebukes David over Bathsheba, he does not say, “Why have you been so stupid?” or “Why have you murdered Uriah?”, though these would have been perfectly valid questions. Rather, he asks, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?”

That’s always the real issue.

A characteristically righteous life. “SO you will walk in the way of the good.” This kind of lifestyle is described four different ways: “good”, “righteous”, “upright” and “with integrity”. Satisfying, God-conscious, visible rectitude is a good thing. People who are of that sort, Solomon says, will “inhabit the land”. Those who are not … will not.

Israel’s well-documented history of scatterings, dispersions and reconstitutions testifies vividly to the truth of that last point.

A note: I recognize the obvious “IF / THEN / SO” structure of this passage (and therefore its resemblance to a formal logical argument) is largely a function of its translation into English. The comparative simplicity of the Hebrew language, where many words that demand to be present in English are merely inferred, actually makes Solomon’s case sound more imperative, something like “acquire / understand / deliver / walk”. Still, the same pattern of repetition exists in Hebrew and, I think, justifies the observation.

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